Lindsay Lohan busted for cocaine!
Paris Hilton: I hate prison food!
Angelina Jolie takes her kids bowling—in France!
We’ve become junkies—craving more and more news about a growing cadre of celebrities, ranging from accomplished artists to do-nothing heiresses and know-nothing reality-show stars.
Most critics treat our celebrity madness as if it were just a public nuisance, one we could cure by modifying our habits: Debate world hunger at the watercooler instead of Britney Spears’ parental skills.
But we should take the big questions far more seriously. Why are celebs so ... everywhere today? And what function does celeb culture play in our culture?
Our obsession with celebrity is not some aberration, but an intrinsic aspect of the central economic, social and political force in Western life: consumerism.
Celebrity culture reflects consumerism by flattening distinctions: If all cultural products—from video games to poems, from roller sneakers to religious beliefs—are reduced to commodities, then the only thing that matters is buying and selling. A Rembrandt and a Lil’ Abner comic strip are basically the same as long as they entertain me or make me a profit.
Celeb culture has helped bring about the commodification of human life.
I Want! I Want!
A famous William Blake engraving shows a boy who has just begun to climb a long ladder extended to the moon. “I Want! I Want!” he says.
Consumerism cultivates a similar form of desire—the desire to consume more and more goods and services, with the hope that someday we’ll reach ultimate satisfaction.
We never will, of course. We will always remain wanting, because what we want in the end—what consumers are implicitly taught to want—is not things, but social distinction. A Jaguar is as much a class symbol as it is a car. Same for an Ivy League education, or the taste for European art flicks, or a knowledge of fine wines, or ... the game has no end.
“Consumerism isn’t just about spending money: It’s about reconstituting our conceptions of self, our self-worth and self-identity,” said Ellis Cashmore, author of “Celebrity Culture,” “The Black Culture Industry” and “Beckham.”
Cashmore, who teaches at Staffordshire University in England, argues that celebrity culture has “actually changed the relationship we have ... with each other, to the point where we actually live vicariously through mediated figures—(Princess) Diana being the most resplendent example.”
If Blake’s moon represents where we want to be, the stars surrounding it are ... well, the stars—the celebrities who (we are led to believe) are already there. Celebrities invoke in us—and also literally embody for us—the same endless, ever-growing, anxious desire that governs our relation with consumer goods.
Your life or your money!
Celebrities fulfill three symbolic functions:
They are models of behavior—the ultimate sellers. They sell us things. And because of the intimacy and kinship we feel for them, they humanize the process.
They are ideal consumers, always buying more. Luxurious lifestyles make celebs symbols for consumption itself.
They themselves are commodities. As consumer goods whose lives are laid out for us to enjoy, celebs are (nothing but?) objects to be bought and sold—and eventually discarded.
Every word you hear from celebs is a sales pitch. They are either hawking goods in an official capacity as brand representatives, or recommending objects and memes we ought to check out. The way they do this is such a part of their public personas that it’s almost impossible to see it as a form of marketing.
Consider last year, when two couples—Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes—played hide-and-seek with frenzied media over their respective relationships. While staging romantic moments, or waxing poetic about love on talk shows, each happened to have major films to sell. Perfectly natural.
As the ultimate sellers, celebs are the ultimate “models of personality”: They show us how others (the folks who make what the celebs are selling) want us to be.
The role of celebs is similar to that once played by priests, rulers and military heroes who offered us ideal personality types.
David Schmid of the University at Buffalo said celebrities now fulfill that function by offering us “models of selfhood ... at a time when our society has been through a massive shift” that has left us feeling “dislocated and rootless.”
What are celebs selling? Cultural productions—the songs, movies and TV shows of everyday life—that millions of us use, in various ways, to define who we are. Many people say such things “aren’t important”—then go out and buy that gansta-rap CD, that “World of Warcraft” video game, that Homer Simpson or Che Guevara or Garth Brooks or Fantasia or Frederic Bastiat or Joris-Karl Huysmans or Rage Against the Machine T-shirt—all of which might as well be spiritual bumper stickers. We use art, politics and even religion the same way. In each case, celebs are there, modeling how to be.
Celebs not only sell us products. They also embody the American Dream—as reconfigured by consumer society. They are the ultimate consumers who, Cashmore said, “have become walking advertisements for a new type of society in which every human need has been satisfied.”
For Cashmore, celebs embody the promise that everyone can transform themselves from nothing into autonomous, self-created individuals—by consuming product, whether it be lipstick or a three-month Buddhist retreat in the Himalayas.
Third and last, celebs are nothing more—or less—than products themselves. They not only embody the ideal consumer; they also urge us to become commodities to survive in modern society. Look at online dating sites that demand each person market him or herself as an ideal mate. Look at the offstage mom; the careers office at the local high school that gives after-school seminars in “selling yourself”; the hungry audience gestures on YouTube; spam spam spam; the triumph of unapologetic self-marketing. Celebs sell, they consume, they are what they sell—and they teach us to follow suit.
The death of celebrity?
The massive rise in celebrity-related chatter over the last five years has included an expansion of the definition of “celebrity” itself: There’s no way Richard Hatch, winner of the first Survivor, would be considered a celeb 10 years ago.
As media have shifted and expanded to cable, satellite, handheld devices, and Web services such as blogs and Webcasts, there’s been more demand for content—for faces to love or mock.
“There has been a democratization of media coverage and fame access,” said Schmid, who sees shows such as “American Idol” as an “experiment in American democracy” since they (at least seemingly) open the door to fame to more and more people.
It seems Andy Warhol’s prophecy—15 minutes of fame for each one of us—has come true.
But ironically, if everyone can be a celeb, then that radical difference that once marked celebs off will be gone: Celebrity will die.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tirdad Derakhshani is a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer.